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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Insights from Modern Imaging Studies of the Brain

Insights From Modern Imaging Studies of the Brain

Modern imaging techniques like functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging ( f MRI) enable scientists to study the human brain in real time. Areas of the brain that are active would “light up” when the subject perform a function or activity, giving us an idea the parts of the brain involved. Likewise, when the part of the brain that should light up when doing a certain activity but does not in a particular person doing that same activity, that also tells us something of the abnormality in that person’s brain. This particular observation is highly relevant in such conditions as autism.

            The basic principle of f MRI is based on changes in local blood flow in the brain that correlates with increased nerve cell activities. This increased flow alters the ratio of the oxygenated (unused) hemoglobin pigment versus the deoxygenated (used), which is picked up by the f MRI.

            There are fascinating studies on babies and also adults across cultures that help us better understand the workings of the human brain.

            The brain is unique in that it is far from fully developed at birth. It has considerable post-birth growth, making the birth process pivotal as interferences during it impacts the brain’s subsequent development. There are many examples of the tragic consequences on brain development from birth complications. Both nature and nurture influence post-birth growth.

            Pre-birth, genetic factors predominate, as with chromosomal abnormalities. Environmental factors like lack of essential vitamins (folic acid) and nutrients or the presence of toxins (lead, infection) could also be consequential.

            A baby’s brain has the same number of neurons as the adult’s. These neurons continue making their connections with each other (synapses) after birth, a process called synaptic growth. This is influenced by both nature (primarily genetic) and nurture (the baby’s physical and emotional experiences). Such activities like hearing, seeing, touching, smelling, and tasting stimulate the growth of these neural connections.

            When a pathway is used frequently, the brain recognizes its importance and covers the nerve cell branches with a fatty myelin sheath to insulate it so the impulses would travel faster and not stray, as well as to protect the nerve fiber. This myelination process is most dynamic up until adolescence but continues on though much more slowly into adulthood.

            Concomitant with synaptic growth is another process both complementary and in the opposite direction, that of synaptic pruning. Those connections not used will atrophy, as illustrated by the experiments on suturing shut the eyes of kittens cited earlier.

            There are three theories on brain development. First, the maturational perspective, postulates that brain development depends on the natural maturation process of its various parts and largely determined by nature. The environmental role would be restricted to only interference or acceleration of that maturation process. The child for example, would not learn to control its sphincters until the appropriate parts of the brain controlling those functions are mature (at about three or four years); likewise, learning to talk or walk (at about two).

            Second is the interactive specialization theory. Brain development (especially postnatal) involves organizing interactions between the different parts of the brain where the development (or lack) of one part affects the others. Meaning, primarily a process of integration. The studies on children blinded at birth with cataracts and later given sight-restoring surgery support this contention. The child does not “see” right after the surgery but has to learn it.

            The third is the skill-learning hypothesis. Imaging studies indicate that when children learn new skills, like walking, the frontal cortex (“higher” part) of the brain is activated. As they become facile, the active part shifts more posterior. The inference is that the frontal cortex is concerned with learning, but once that skill has become automatic (as with walking), brain activity shifts to the back, the non-thinking part.

            When we learn a new skill like playing a musical instrument, the front part of our brain would be active. Later when we have mastered it, the brain activity would shift to a more posterior part of the brain, from the learning to the routine center as it were.

            This theory is also supported by the findings that children who receive little social stimulation or opportunities to explore their world have 20 to 30 percent smaller brains than children of comparable age. Similarly, children exposed to prolonged stress, as with abuse or trauma, will have altered brain function as a consequence of that constant high level of the stress hormone, cortisol. They have difficulty developing warm and secure relationships. We saw this with Harlow’s baby monkeys.

            In essence the earlier nature-nurture dichotomy and the consequent heated controversies were misplaced. Instead we have a complex interplay of the two, one influencing and in turn being influenced by the other. It is a dynamic as well as adaptive process.

            An exciting development in modern genetics is epigenetics. Briefly explained, it is the inheritance of traits that are not due to changes in one’s underlying genes but induced by alterations in our environment. In traditional biology, only genetic changes are inherited; that still holds true. However, changes in the environment (like stress, starvation, exposure to drugs and chemicals) could alter how those genes would be expressed (phenotype), and then those changes would be passed on to the next generation. The gene itself is unchanged, only its expression.

            As a concept, it is an old one, predating Darwin, as with Lamark using it to explain the long neck of giraffes. The modern concept, with its understanding at the molecular level and integrating it with existing knowledge of DNAs, is very recent.

            Genes carry only the codes for proteins, and only that. Proteins are complex molecules, and how they function is influenced by its final shape or conformation even though the molecule itself is unchanged. Gene expression also depends on its conformations, and that in turn is influenced by its microenvironment.

            Consider the “simple” water molecule, one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms. Imagine a gene coding for it. At room temperature that chemical as water could be used to erode a slope; at higher temperatures as steam, to power turbines to produce electricity; at low temperatures as in the Arctic, it could crush the ships’ steel hulls. Same code for the same molecule, but with different environment you get vastly different consequences.

            Something similar with the workings of our genes. Depending on their conformations (shapes), different parts have different polarities, some more positive, others negative. Chemicals like the stress hormone cortisol has varying own polarities on its molecules. They would be attracted to the opposite polar parts of the genes, thus altering their shapes ever so subtly to the extent that the genes could not be expressed. This change in conformation would then be transferred to the next generation such that even though it has the genes, they are not expressed, which is the same thing as not having the genes.

            Experiments with rats showed that when the mother licked its babies frequently, they grew up to be contented and relaxed. Those babies in turn would have babies that were also contented and relaxed, and would lick their own babies frequently, thus perpetuating the transmission. Meanwhile those mothers that did not lick or prevented from licking their babies would have stressed babies. They in turn would not lick their young and produce yet another generation of stressed babies, and the cycle continues. The genes themselves have not changed rather the behaviors of the mother would be transmitted through the mechanism of epigenes to the next generation, influencing whether those genes would be expressed.

            Child rearing practices (and that would include what and how we feed as well as nurture our babies) vary with culture. Those practices, as with the licking of rat babies, affect our epigenome, and we pass that on to the next generation.

            Stated simply, we pass on through our biological mechanisms not only our genes (our nature) but also our cultural practices (nurture) through our epigenomes.

            The next major period of change is during adolescence. Again, the environment is crucial. This impact is consequential and defining enough to merit the designation of the “adolescent brain.” Nothing has changed with respect to the “nature” component, only the environment. One is internal, the surge of new hormones (primarily sex hormones) and the other, external, the cultural rites of passage. The effect on the brain at puberty however is not as critical though no less profound as with during the first few years.

            The different parts of the brain develop at different rates. The subcortical limbic system that controls emotions develops much faster than the cortical part, the “rational” center. Stated in Freudian language, the id maturing before the superego. Thus, teenagers are predisposed to impulsive and dangerous behaviors. Insights from studies of the adolescent brain have tremendous impact on the criminal justice system, questioning the basic premise of culpability and liability with these teenagers.

            In California, when a child is involved in an accident it is never at fault; it is always the adult’s. Likewise, the criminal records of juveniles are sealed or destroyed once they reach a certain age, based on the same principle.

Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Insight From Children And Their Marshmallows

Insight From Children and Their Marshmallows
M. Bakri Musa

The behaviors of others have a profound impact on us. If those “others” are authority figures or have influence over us (leaders, ulamas, teachers, parents), the impact is magnified. It would not take much especially in the absence of dissenting views for us to internalize the “consensus.” This is true of individuals as well as society.

            Consider this experiment with preschool children. They were given a marshmallow with instructions that if they were not to eat it right away, they would be rewarded with another one 15 minutes later. Imagine putting temptations in front of fearsome fours! Amazingly, about a third of the children were able to restrain themselves. The rest would succumb, with a few giving up just shy of the deadline!

            The experiment demonstrated that there are individual differences to delayed gratification (or reactions to temptations) and that these could be discerned as early as the preschool age. The other conclusion was that young children did not always seek immediate gratification. If those were the only findings, the study would not have been “one of the most successful behavioral experiments.”

            Fourteen years later when those kids were of college age, the lead experimenter, picking up on anecdotal accounts on those earlier participants, did a follow-up study. Those kids who succeeded in deferring eating their marshmallows did better academically and had less disciplinary problems in school. Indeed, delay in eating their marshmallow was a better predictor of SAT scores (scholastic achievement) than IQ tests or the parents’ educational level!

            The other valuable insight came not from the data but from observing the children. The “impulse controlled” kids were busy distracting themselves. They sang, sat on their hands (lest they be tempted to grab the marshmallow), closed their eyes, or played with their clothes.

            The psychological dynamics of the children closing their eyes were akin to Ulysses making his sailors stuff bees wax into their ears so they would not be tempted by the Sirens’ melodious songs. Those children faced as much internal tension in restraining themselves as Ulysses did in tying himself to a mast lest he too would succumb to the call of the Sirens.*

            It is not enough to tell children or anyone to just restrain themselves, as in “Just Say No to Drugs!” campaign. We must also train them to distract themselves by engaging in other activities.

            The original study involved preschool children from the Stanford community, meaning, above average in income, intellect, and social class. That study in turn was stimulated by an earlier Jamaican one on racial stereotypes Blacks and East Indians there had of each other. The Indians viewed Blacks as impulsive hedonists, always living for the present and never thinking of the future. The Blacks thought the Indians did not know how to live, stuffed their money under the mattress, and never enjoyed themselves. Sounds uncomfortably familiar to Malaysians! In that study the experimenter substituted chocolate bars for marshmallows.

            The study revealed that stereotyping correlated more with social class and less with race, a finding that should interest Malaysians.

            This ability to delay gratification has vast implications. If a culture is predisposed to immediate gratification, it would be unable to save for future needs. Economists tell us that capital formation (achieved through savings, meaning, delayed gratification) is key to economic development.

            The insight from the marshmallow study explains some incomprehensible patterns of behavior. For example, those who come upon wealth through inheritance or lottery rarely keep it while those who acquire it through hard work do.
            Consider those FELDA farmers who became instant millionaires when their land was acquired for the new Sepang Airport. A few years later they were back to being poor farmers. On the other hand, an entrepreneur who built a successful business keeps his wealth.

            Those lucky FELDA farmers were kids who could not resist their marshmallows. They did not preoccupy or distract themselves from their treats. The entrepreneur on the other hand is still preoccupied with his business. The fact that he is making good money (meaning, well rewarded) is further gratification for him, a validation of his work and inspiring him to continue.

            Consider the late Steve Jobs. When forced to resign from Apple, he could have just enjoyed the tons of money he had made. Instead he busied himself starting another enterprise. Consumed with his new company he had no time to even consider squandering his wealth. In terms of psychological dynamics, his involvement with NeXT (his new enterprise) was the equivalent of the little girl singing to distract herself from her marshmallow.

            This weakness to squander easily-acquired or windfall wealth is not unique to FELDA farmers. Winners of lotteries and liability suits in America suffer the same fate; likewise, newly-rich Malays who acquire their wealth through corruption, rent-seeking activities, or political patronage. Once they are out of the lucrative loop, their wealth dissipates and they are back patronizing warong kopi instead of five-star restaurants.

            Advertisers take full advantage of our propensity for immediate gratification. Consider home mortgages. Traditionally, if you have a mortgage of $150K you still owe that amount even if the house has doubled in value. That restrains your spending.

            Enter the concept of home equity. With slick advertising, bankers would have you believe that you do not owe $150K rather that you have an equity, the difference between the house value and the mortgage. Now you feel rich and be inclined to spend on lavish vacations and fancy cars, forgetting that you are spending borrowed funds.

            Advertisers were very effective in making homeowners eat their marshmallows right away, for the value and number of home equity loans quickly ballooned. That led to a boom not only for equity mortgage lenders but also purveyors of consumer goods and fancy vacations.

            Millions of home equity loans later, and we have a housing bust. When property values dropped, those mortgages and equity loans went underwater, triggering the 2007 American financial crisis that rivaled the Great Depression.

            As much of this desire for instant gratification is learned, we could just as well unlearn it. Or to put it in the context of modern neuroscience, we can carve new neural networks so the old nonproductive ones could be bypassed or “synaptically pruned” (discarded).

            Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), a system of charter schools in New York, is going beyond the traditional 3Rs by incorporating much of the insights from the marshmallow studies in its curriculum. To the school, character matters, and one of the fundamental character strengths which the school instills is self-control in their students, for them to learn to not devour their marshmallows right away.

            We can teach that to young and old. When Muslims fast, we practice exactly that–self-restraint, not just for 15 minutes but the whole day. We do that every Ramadan. However, this important lesson in self-restraint is lost with our preoccupation on the rituals of fasting.

            Back to those now poor FELDA farmers, much could have been done so they would not devour their marshmallows (spend their money) right away. One would be to have a structured distribution instead of a lump sum payment, with the principal deposited in Tabung Haji, for example. Had that been done, combined with competent and sensible financial advice, those FELDA farmers would still be enjoying their bounty today. Pension funds are not distributed as a lump sum but converted to an annuity-like distribution to last your expected lifetime. Likewise, enlightened American judges now structure the payouts to successful plaintiffs over a period of time.

            As can be seen, the insights from human psychology experiments, even seemingly simple ones involving four-year olds, can have profound implications and practical applications.

Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016.

* In Greek mythology, the Sirens are mermaid-like seductresses with melodious voices who lured sailors to shipwreck onto a rocky coast.